If you’ve only been paying half-attention to all the news about health insurance and the Obama Administration’s updates to the new insurance rules — you might be uncertain about the deadline for signing up.
In truth, there are two deadlines. Which one matters? It depends on your circumstances.
- Dec. 23rd — the first deadline — matters if you absolutely want or need insurance benefits starting on Jan. 1st. If you meet this deadline, you can visit a doctor or hospital the first week of January, with your insurance benefits (assuming you can find a doctor with open appointments). You might be someone who currently has an insurance plan that’s ending, and you don’t want to risk a break in coverage (imagine going one month without insurance, and that’s the month you fall off a ladder). Or, you might be someone who’s been uninsured for years and waiting for the opportunity to buy affordable insurance. If you sign-up (and pay your first-month’s fee) by Dec. 23, then you’ll have insurance you can use starting the first of January. UPDATE (12/19): Because of so many computer-caused delays, you only need to have an application “in-process” by 11:59pm on Dec. 23, and you can have coverage in Jan. But you must complete the application and make full payment by Jan. 15. FAQ of 12/30 from Healthplanfinder.
- Mar. 31st — the second deadline — matters if you want insurance before the federal tax penalty kicks in, and you want to get some benefits during the 2014 calendar year. Anyone who enrolls by Mar. 31 will avoid the tax penalty that comes with the federal mandate to have health insurance for 2014.
Other options? Yes
During January, February and March, you can enroll at any time. Your benefits will begin the following month, if you’ve enrolled by the 23rd of the month. So, for example, if you enroll on Feb. 20, you’re insurance benefits would begin on Mar. 1.
Note to anyone waiting for the last week of March: Enroll by Mar. 23 to have coverage in April. Everyone who enrolls from Mar. 24-31 will have to wait until May 1st for those benefits to kick in.
And, if your income allows you to qualify for expanded Medicaid, then there are no absolute deadlines — enrollment is ongoing (with coverage starting Jan.1, if you’re in the category of “newly eligible”).
The trade-offs: Now vs. later
The benefit of enrolling sooner is clear — you’ll have insurance protection as soon as possible, and there’s good evidence that people with health insurance are able to live healthier lives, while also protecting against financial ruin caused by huge medical bills.
But, if you’re confused about your choices, and worry about picking a plan that you’ll regret later, then it might make sense to take your time. If you can get personal assistance through the toll-free help-line (855-923-4633), or through an In-Person Assister, that helps. But if you’re having trouble connecting this month, there’s still time early next year.
Either way, if you need to buy your own insurance, the enrollment team at Public Health – Seattle & King County suggests it’s a good idea to start looking at Washington Healthplanfinder, create a personal account, try browsing the options, and compile a list of questions.